Thursday, November 22, 1973EXECUTIVE ACTION. Written by Dalton Trumbo, based on a story by Donald Freed and Mark Lane. Music by Randy Edelman. Directed by David Miller. Running time: 91 minutes. General entertainment.
I remember that day with hollow, painful clarity.
So do you. So does everyone.
Ask around the room. "Where were you on Friday, November 22, 1963?"
We remember because, unlike so many historical tragedies, the murder of John Fitzgerald Kennedy touched us all. As David Frost said a matter of hours later on the BBC, "death has become immediate to people all over the world." The loss was somehow personal to every one of us.
Ten years and a day later comes Executive Action, a film that tears at the unhealed wound, clawing at it until it opens, until the blood flows and the pain returns undiminished. The event, rather than the film, numbs the senses, making it difficult to know quite how to review the film. Ask me questions.
What is it?
A conspiracy theory — remember all the conspiracy theories? — acted out. A small group of rich and powerful men, personifications of the military-industrial complex, fear that the Kennedy family, together with their liberal coalition — intellectuals, the young, the blacks and the press — will become a presidential dynasty.
Specifically, they fear Kennedy will not oppose, but rather lead the black revolution, that he will negotiate a test ban treaty with the Russians and that he will withdraw U.S. forces from Vietnam. To stop him, they decide to take extra-legal "executive" action.
Who thought it up?
Dalton Trumbo, who was once blacklisted by Hollywood's ultra-Americans, wrote the script. It's based on a story by Mark Lane, author of one of the original conspiracy theory books, Rush to Judgment.
Apparently Donald Sutherland (of all people) took the original idea to independent producer Edward Lewis, who then took it to Trumbo. Producer Lewis and writer Trumbo have worked together on a number of projects, including Spartacus (1960), The Fixer (1968) and Lonely Are the Brave (1962).
Who's in it?
Kennedy, of course, and Jacqueline, Adlai Stevenson, Martin Luther King and Lee Harvey Oswald. They're all in the picture via sepia-toned film clips for the most part, although Oswald is also a character in the story (played by look-allke James Mac Coll), and there is a JFK stand-in in the slow-motion reconstruction of the actual assassination.
The major conspirators — shadow figures all — are James Farrington, Robert Foster and Harold Ferguson. Farrington, played with cold efficiency by Burt Lancaster, is the operations man who details the plan to the rest of the conspirators, often with the help of slides, maps and professional-looking charts.
An element of recalcitrance is introduced by Ferguson, an aging oilman played with folksy charm by Will Geer. "Ah undah-stan these thangs," he says with a pronounced drawl. "Ah just don' lahk 'em."
Committed to the plan intellectually but offended by it aesthetically is Robert Foster (Robert Ryan), the pragmatically philosophical leader of the group. Like the high priest Caiaphas, he believes, with an unspoken fervour, in the expedience of one man's death for the good of the nation.
In this, Ryan's last role, the suffering in his face and voice is not all acting. His stomach was quite literally killing hlm. He died the day after the film was completed.
How is it?
Were it not for the subject matter, Executive Action would be an indifferent thriller. Director David Miller has been around for years, working on lady-in-distress projects like Midnight Lace (1960) and Sudden Fear (1952).
Certainly his best previous film was the contemporary Western Lonely Art the Brave, his only other collaboration with Lewis and Trumbo.
On an absolute scale, Fred Zinneman's Day of the Jackal (1973), about an attempt on French President Charles DeGaulle's life, is technically superior. Constantin Costa-Gavras's handling of the fictional-factual style (Z, 1969; The Confession, 1970; State of Siege, 1972) is more insightful.
The key scene in Miller's film is the re-enactment of the assassination. In the hands of someone keenly sensitive to violence — someone like Sam Peckinpah — it could have been a moment of poetic desolation.
Miller, like the rest of us, seems mentally numbed by the crime. Trumbo's script postulates a trio of assassins in a triangulated pattern.
Miller shows us the slow-motion view through one gun scope, repeats the shooting a second time through the second scope, and then a third. After the documentary realism of the rest of the film, his sudden alteration of time sense is less artistic than annoying.
Why would anyone want to make a film like this?
I asked myself that, too. John Kennedy was a tabula rasa upon which a generation — my generation — had written its dreams. To think that he was cut down by a demented fanatic was bad enough.
To see his death portrayed as the result of a hard-nosed conspiracy, a plot engineered by men of position, wealth, intelligence and influence, is too much. This bleak and pessimistic film suggests that the ideals and institutions that Americans most cherish have long since been lost.
At the beginning of Executive Action, the producers serve notice that their conspiracy is a fiction. "We merely suggest that it could have existed," they say.
In this, the year of Watergate, who's to say that it could not?
The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1973. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.
Afterword: It's obvious from the tone of the above review that the first American movie to seriously challenge the Warren Commission's conclusion (that the accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone) hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. While I recognized that cinematically the film was no great shakes, I found the story emotionally overwhelming. I am reminded of how much the teen-aged me had invested in the charismatic Kennedy's presidency. Another 18 years later, when I reviewed Oliver Stone's polished, persuasive conspiracy epic JFK, I discovered that nerves were raw enough to call forth new tears. For the record, I was between classes and leaning over a drinking fountain in the halls of Toronto's York Memorial Collegiate when I heard someone behind me say "President Kennedy's been shot."
22/11/63 Remembered: Flashpoint (1984); JFK (1991); Love Field (1993); Ruby (1992); Winter Kills (1979); Killing Kennedy (2013).